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Marketing to the Cell Phone Generation

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June 18, 2009
Bill Geoghegan - Bill@LGTConsulting.com

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© 2009 Hospitality Upgrade. No reproduction without written permission.

It is difficult to remember what life was like before the cell phone.  While most of the statistics were gathered in 2005 and 2006, according to the CIA World Factbook 2007, there were over 2 billion cell phones in use throughout the world. In developed countries like the United States, United Kingdom and Western Europe, the worldwide penetration of cell phones is greater than 97 percent of the population.  Including developing countries, over 48 percent of the world population has a cell phone. In many developing countries, such as South Korea, the number of cell phones in use exceeds the number of people in the country.  Much of this can be explained by the fact that the penetration of landlines was low, and the cellular technology allowed communication companies to skip building out the landline infrastructure completely, going directly to cells.

While the percentage of cell phone users in the United States is not as high as it is in some countries, more than 70 percent of Americans have and use cell phones, with a large number opting to eliminate their landlines completely. A BBDO survey found that 75 percent of cell phone owners in the U.S. had their phones on and within reach at all times during their waking hours, while 26 percent said it was more important for them to return home to retrieve a forgotten cell phone than it was to get a wallet.

Yet the cellular world is still in its infancy.  Cellular handsets have gone from nothing more than a remote telephone receiver to being a fully functional computing device, capable of sending and receiving e-mail, browsing the Internet, and using an embedded GPS to find the way to a destination.  With included still and movie cameras as well as voice recording ability, the cell phone is the most convergent device in existence. Companies like Palm, Research in Motion® (RIM®–makers of the BlackBerry® line of phones), Samsung and Apple® have continuously enhanced their products on a short cycle with new features.

In addition to basic phone functionality, the cell phone has provided us with short message service or SMS – the ability to send and receive short text messages through the phone.  This communication method has been widely abused by teenagers, but represents a powerful method of getting a marketing message to a cell phone subscriber.  Like e-mail, it is delivered whenever the phone is on and within range, and will be buffered for later delivery if the phone is out of range or off.  Sending a message to a phone from a Web site is a straight-forward process, with many third-party subscription services able to send to phones of most cellular providers. 

Wireless application protocol (WAP) is an international standard that allows Internet access from a mobile phone or personal digital assistant (PDA).  The WAP standards define the cellular world’s version of hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP). Unfortunately, not every cell phone supplier has accepted and integrated WAP into their phones and systems, but the move toward multimedia messaging service (MMS or picture messaging), which combines WAP and SMS, and is driving adoption of the WAP protocol.

Many cell phones are now bypassing the WAP protocol and instead use mobile browsers to bring Internet content to the phones. Unlike the PC and Mac worlds, there is no dominant browser for cell phones, although a number of leaders are emerging.  BlackBerry devices have a proprietary browser, while Opera Mobile, Apple’s Safari® and Internet Explorer Mobile are making inroads. 

While communicating with a cell phone user is an outstanding marketing opportunity, it is one fraught with some challenges.

The mobile industry has been diligent in protecting its customers from spam using SMS, so it is important to understand the limitations in using the short messages for marketing.  Also, many subscribers are charged a fee for each message they send and receive, which means that bombarding a customer with SMS opportunities can lead to a distasteful bill at the end of the month. Notwithstanding, there are a number of uses that can be found in the hotel and casino environment that are certainly worth investigating. 

With typically 3,000 to 5,000 rooms, both casino and convention hotels may turn 70 percent of their rooms in a single day.  In the casino hotel environment, it is not uncommon for the Sunday checkout and checkin count to exceed 3,000.  Many of the weekend guests stay until (or frequently past) their designated check-out time, with many of the Sunday arrivals coming before check-in time, making it virtually impossible to clean and inspect the rooms in time to re-assign them.  It is not uncommon for long lines to form at the front desk with people simply waiting to get their room keys.  In the casino, this long line of people represents lost opportunity for the restaurants, shops and a guest standing in line cannot be playing at the tables or slot machines.  By checking the guests into the hotel without assigning a room at the time of their arrival and storing any luggage they might have, the guest can be given folio charge privileges for the restaurants and outlets, and do whatever they would like to do. When their room becomes available, a short message can be sent to their cell phone notifying them that their room is ready and asking them to return to a designated area where they will receive a key.  This does not even have to be the front desk.

To initiate this process, the guest must supply a cell phone number at the time of checkin. At the same time, the guest may be requested to opt in to an in-house marketing campaign.  The hotel can then send directed text messages to the guest identifying specials, such as last-minute show reservations or early bird restaurant offers.  The same information can be used to notify a guest when their table at a restaurant or the buffet becomes available, allowing the guest to play in the casino rather than stand in line.

Once the guest’s check-out time has passed, the guest-directed marketing to that phone stops, but if the guest has opted in for future marketing, special deals can be sent to that phone at any time. Thank you notes and guest survey invitations can also be sent after the guest has departed, raising the perceived service levels.

One of the most important changes that must be made by a hotel company to embrace cell phones is to make its Web site mobile aware, and create alternative content that works well in the mobile environment.  This is a technology that is still evolving, but many of the more popular mobile browsers can be identified and content molded to fit the smaller viewing area.Wide content, and especially Flash, will drive viewers away from a site that has been optimized for a 1024 x 768 pixel screen, and utilizing the forms that many sites use are difficult at best.

As the demographic of hotel guests encompasses more and more generation X and generation Y, paying close attention to the marketing and service opportunities afforded by the mobile phone is necessary. Some of the more inventive hotels and casinos are differentiating themselves by embracing these opportunities and at the same time providing better service to the guest.

Bill Geoghegan is a consultant in Las Vegas. He can be reached for comment at Bill@LGTConsulting.com.

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